Crime Lab underfunded

Sam Howell, the director of the Mississippi Crime Lab, tries to sound understanding of the funding shortages that have slowed his facility to a crawl in getting its work done.

The state’s coroners are not so charitable.

In an extensive article recently published in the Clarion Ledger, several of the county coroners grouse mightily not only about the delays but the corners that the crime lab is cutting on some of the work it does perform.

“Cutting” may be a poor choice of words, though, since what has the coroners especially concerned is the medical examiners’ decision to increasingly bypass traditional autopsies, in which a corpse is cut open to determine cause of death, for speedier visual examinations and a look at the deceased person’s medical records.

Questions also have been raised as to whether the crime lab is breaking a state law that requires autopsies on all inmates, except those on death row, who die while in state custody. There has been a rash of such deaths this year.

Howell says that the statute, which was put on the books decades ago, may be antiquated, given the advances in medical technology. But that’s not his call to make, nor that of anyone else who works in the crime lab. If state law mandates an autopsy be performed, and a visual examination does not meet the definition of an autopsy, then the crime lab needs to follow the law, regardless of what its funding or staffing situation is, unless the law is changed.

Not moved by the death of criminals behind bars? You might be moved by this: Given the current performance of the crime lab, not only are prosecutions being inordinately delayed for all sorts of crimes, but some perpetrators might literally be getting away with murder. Without “cut” autopsies, the potential increases that foul play in a death could go undetected.

The irony with the problems at the crime lab is that Mississippi spent more than $30 million just a couple of years ago building a modern, well-equipped facility, but it hasn’t put up the money to adequately operate it. The crime lab is running a third below full staffing. With only two overworked medical examiners, there are days when no autopsies get done because they are both called away to testify at trials. Howell told the Clarion Ledger that his operating budget this year is lower than what it was more than a decade ago.

The scenario has a familiar ring to it. Mississippi lawmakers took the same half-way approach with highways, spending billions to build nice, new ones, but not investing nearly enough to keep them up. It was a penny-wise, pound-foolish approach, as it now will cost much more to repair the crumbling transportation infrastructure than if it had been taken care of all along.

There are costs to a crime lab that operates at a snail’s pace, too. Cases drag out, running up the tab of prosecution. Victims and their families are left hanging, waiting for justice to be done. Insurance settlements are held up. And crimes potentially go unsolved, while those who committed them run free.

It’s a bad situation that’s not going to get any better until the state decides to invest what it takes to properly run the place.


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